Category : Problem solving

What a question

Every once in a great while you hear  a question that changes how you look at things, how you approach strategy, design, marketing, innovation, and maybe even your own life. Here’s one that’s rocking my thinking:

“Who do you want your customers* to become?”


In his book of the same name, MIT’s Michael Schrage says, “Successful innovators don’t just ask customers and clients to do something different, they ask them to become something different.”

Who do you want your customers to becomeBecause customers are always changing, strategy shouldn’t focus on existing customers but on who tomorrow’s customers will — and should — be, and then designing our offers to help the customer become that person. To realize new attitudes, behaviors, values, and habits.

  • Facebook asks users to become more open about sharing their personal information.
  • Disney helps little girls become princesses. Amazon has asked people to become different kinds of shoppers.
  • Google has asked us to  become impatient searchers who demand speed. Social business is asking us to share and tap into our collective intelligence.
  • My Rebels at Work movement is asking people to stand up and lead change within organizations.
  • Uber is asking us to demand lower costs and easier booking for chauffeured transportation.
  • The Khan Academy is asking us to rethink teachers as tutors and coaches.
  • Bobbi Brown is asking us to keep our make-up simple and easy.
  • FedEx is asking small businesses to consider the world their market, not just their local countries.

Once you articulate The Ask, you can more clearly see what you need to do to help your customers  become someone different. This becomes the strategy discussion.

Schrage notes that few company vision statements address the customer. Most are about the company and provide little direction on how to  add value to the customer.  “A customer vision statement, explicitly identifies the qualities and attributes the organization aspires to create in its customers.”

* Note that you could insert client, boss, donor, citizens, association members and other types of customers into this question. How do you want to transform that group of people? How will they benefit?  Do the benefits offset what they’ll need to do to transform?

Schrage’s short and provocative ebook is available on Amazon for $3.03. It’s a must-read, and its question is a must-ask.

Optimism lifts

What advice do you wish someone had given you earlier in your career?  “Don’t climb, lift,” said veteran analyst John Bordeaux in his Rebel at Work story.

Don’t climb. Lift.

There’s much to take away from this advice. One question might be, “What allows us to lift?”

Optimism lifts. Skepticism requires climbing.

I remember my first week on a new job talking with a team of discouraged people, demoralized because their client was unhappy with their work.

“Let’s try to show the client how much we’re accomplishing.  How about we change the monthly report formats and  list everything that we’ve accomplished each month in bullet points, right at the top,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right,” said Cindy. “What happens if we don’t achieve those kinds of results?”

Though I had only been at the agency a couple of weeks I was optimistic that we’d be able to achieve more,  especially if we changed a few approaches to the work.

“If we do these two things every month I really think we’ll be able to report some results that will make the client happy. Let’s just try it for a couple of months and see what happens.”

This optimism accomplished two things.  The team didn’t resist my new ideas, although they were contrary to the way most teams did things at the company, and the team did in fact achieve results that surprised them and the client. Someone genuinely believing they could succeed lifted the team, and they achieved more than they thought possible.

Optimism has a powerful influence on people.  It helps us to take a chance, do something new, invest in an alternative approach.

This is not about chirpy, fake platitudes and those motivational “Dare to do the Impossible” posters posted on bulletin boards near the lunchroom. I’m talking about adopting a mindset focused more on possibilities than problems.

In a world where the voices of the skeptics and naysayers seem to shout the loudest, we optimists quietly and persistently keep going. We do so because we believe that our idea is possible. We see the reasons why it can work and the value it will provide. We follow our passions, know and use our strengths, are open-minded and open-hearted, and we often reflect about what is working and where we can do things differently.

Sure we fall back and get frustrated, too. Big time. But it’s how you respond to setbacks that influences how likely you’ll be able to find the energy to get up and continue on.

How optimistic people achieve more:

  • Attract supporters. People prefer to be part of teams that believe what they’re doing is achievable. They also get energy from being around optimistic people, so they like to be on your team.
  • Get the ear of more people. Even if people don’t agree with our ideas, they are more willing to listen to us and have a conversation.
  • Self-motivate themselves.  When you believe something is possible it motivates you to stay with the idea, keep gathering information, ask questions, get input, think how to improve on it. Doing this makes the idea even more likely to succeed.
  • Minimize stress: Persistence and determination are easier to sustain when you have an optimistic attitude. Make no mistake that  being a rebel at work is stressful, but a positive perspective can make it less exhausting.  Optimists ride the possibility wave to keep motivated. Pessimists tackle persistence and determination by pushing a rock up hill. People want to surf with you. Pushing heavy objects up steep hills, not so much.
  • Trigger contagiousness.  Positive ideas get talked about.  Ones that connect with rational and emotional desires hop on the word of mouth train.  “Here’s a way we can do our work faster, easier, safer, with more fun, and with much fewer headaches.”  Sign me up to help.
  • Look inviting.   People who are negative show creases on their foreheads, furrows between their eyes, squint marks by the sides of their eyes, bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. I admit this is a superficial benefit of optimism, but looking healthy and restful also attracts more people to you than when you look haggard.   Think about it. Who do you like to chat with around the proverbial water cooler?  A positive, healthy looking person or someone who is stern, overly serious and coiled like they might strike if you say the wrong thing?

 The science of positivity and optimism

The science backs up these views on optimism.

Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a scholar in social and positive psychology and author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, has found that positivity opens our minds and hearts, making us more receptive to ideas and making us more creative. Positive emotions help us to discover new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of doing things – and to recover more quickly when things don’t go well.

She suggests that we try to achieve at least a 3:1 positivity ration.

“This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you,” Dr. Fredrickson explains.  “This is the ratio that I’ve found to be the tipping point, predicting whether people languish or flourish.”

You can’t force optimism and positivity, using insincere, gratuitous gestures and words.  That will backfire.  You have to really feel it and mean it. No platitudes and smiley faces. People see right through that.

In fact, the subtle difference between positivity and optimism is action, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and  author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.”

“Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough,” she writes.  “Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”

Optimism practices

  1. Use new words. If something doesn’t pan out, refrain from calling it a “failure,” or worse, saying “I failed.”  Sometimes things don’t work out. The idea may be too risky for the organization.  You piloted a concept and the data indicated it wouldn’t achieve enough of the right results.  The thinking was sound but the investment costs were far greater than the likely returns.  You get the picture.  If we use failure words, we label ourselves and our efforts in ways that diminish the likelihood of trying again, or of people supporting us again.  We rebels are idea people. Some ideas will work brilliantly, others not so.  We’re not failures.  We’re thinkers and experimenters.
  1. Hang out with optimistic people.  Not the Pollyannas but realists who see what’s possible. Creators vs. complainers.  Avoid the Debbie Downers and Negative Nicks wherever possible. Including in your personal life.
  1. Picture it. Envision how people will feel and be better off if you’re successful. Keep this image clear. Present this image when taking about your project so people are reminded of the big picture benefit. Ask an artsy friend to make an image of it, for you and for you to use when you have to make a presentation about the idea. Or find a metaphorical image that inspires you. (I like the rising moon image in this post.)
  1. Try to work on things that interest you. This isn’t always possible but when we’re determined it’s interesting to see how we can shift assignments and responsibilities, especially when we can demonstrate why the work we WANT to work on is important to the organization.
  1. Tune out.  Though we rebels tend to have insatiable curiosities, there are some things we should stay away from. Like people who over use fear and anxiety to get attention and manipulate feelings. Hysteria clouds perspective and balanced thinking.
  2. Do one scary thing a year.  Something that interests you but you find intimidating, as in “I don’t think I could ever do that.”  Or, “I’d be way out of my league if I took that course.”  “What would I say if I agreed to give a speech like that in front of those people?”  The thing about doing one scary thing a year is that it builds up your confidence.  You will almost always find that you do better than you think you could, or you were welcomed warmly by people you don’t usually associate with. The benefit? Your optimism increases. You believe that more is possible.
  1. Turn to learning: When you hit roadblocks and frustrations turn to learning and questioning. “What could I learn that would help me figure this out? What’s beneath what’s going on here?”  Questions open you back up to possibilities and restore optimism. Don’t stay parked in dead ends.




Facilitating healthy dissent

When we corporate rebels (aka intrapreneurs) disagree, it signals we care about an issue. That we want to wrestle with it to find better approaches. So why do people so often try to shut us down?

Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive.  Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.

What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for  greater collaboration.

Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.

“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”

More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.

We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.

We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions.  It’s about inquiry vs. preaching.  But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.

“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer.  Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”

Practices for inviting healthy conflict

So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates?  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
    • Judge ideas, not people.
    • Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
    • Observations are more useful than opinions.
    • Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
    • Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
    • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
    • Respect other people’s truths.
    • If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
  2. Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening.  I recently asked a group about  the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
  3. Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views.  This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
  4. Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base.  Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
  5. Facilitate or use a facilitator.  Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
  6. Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding?  If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?”  Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
  7. Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard.  Possible closers might be:
  • How did your thinking on this issue shift?
  • What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
  • What was the high point of this discussion for you?

For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”

Staying away from drama

Last month I  was in a board meeting that went off the rails.

The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations,  approval hold-ups by the legal department,  problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”

People left frustrated, exhausted and angry.  Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.

And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence.   In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.

Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting  focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?

Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful.  Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama.  Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively

When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says  John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”

I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways.   Because  our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to  intellectually consider and discuss  alternatives.  There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.

Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.

Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.

I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems.  Want to join me?

Strategy discussions: what’s the real issue?

An executive in a recent workshop kept hijacking the conversation by saying, “We just don’t have the resources to do that.” Over and over. Which kept stalling the strategy session.

Here’s how I got the group unstuck. It might be helpful to you when someone uses the common “Yes, but we don’t have the money/people/time” refrain about new approaches or ideas.

“You all are stretched to the limit,” I said. “And let’s remember that we find resources for priorities that are important to us. Things that aren’t so important don’t get funded. Maybe the real conversation here is that this program just isn’t that important to the company right now. Maybe you should together decide it’s not important, and stop frustrating yourselves by bringing it up at every strategy session.”

Radio silence. (And one executive quietly laughing in acknowledgement.)

The group decided that the issue is important and they figured out a way to get a basic approach working within the next few weeks.  It’s not the Cadillac or Four Seasons version, but it begins to provide value and address a real need in the company.

When someone throws objections, get  to the real issue and get out of the endlessly frustrating and unproductive ” why not” objections.


Raise your hand, speak the truth

The guru on the stage was demonstrating his executive coaching approach with an audience volunteer so that the other 800 of us could learn his technique.

I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.

The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.

I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.

Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”

I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful?  It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”

Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.

He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later.  He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error.  Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base.  (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)

There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.”  Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.

It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.

What if my questions are dumb, we think.

What if they’re not?  What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who closes down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?

Being an effective maverick and rebel  in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.

Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.

If not we, who?

Effective corporate rebels turn to one another

People who change the world in small and big ways, rebel FOR change they believe will make a difference.  They are also keen observers and want to work with others to make the possible real. Over the holidays I had the luxurious pleasure of re-reading author and leadership activist Margaret Wheatley’s book Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future.

Here’s an excerpt that captures the behaviors of those with a desire to lead.

Turning to one another

Ask “what’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?”  Keep asking. Notice what you care about. Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

  • Talk to people you know.
  • Talk to people you don’t know.
  • Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

  • Expect to be surprised.
  • Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite in everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

  • Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.
  • Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.  Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

Margaret Wheatley

CEO Barbara DeBuono: Leading with questions

Executives can lay out a goal and what they think needs to be done to achieve that goal.  People then (hopefully) follow orders and business moves ahead.

This traditional leadership approach cultivates a follower culture. Yet, follower cultures don’t cultivate creativity, innovation, transparency or engagement.

Barbara DeBuono, CEO of Orbis International, takes a different approach, one that more and more highly-effective leaders are adopting: she poses important, provocative questions and then facilitates and guides meaningful conversations. Conversations where people figure out together the ways they believe the organization can best achieve the goal.

She explained the approach to The New York times’ Adam Bryant in the “Corner Office” column:

I asked a group of people at Orbis, “Do you think we’re a high performing organization?” and then I shut my mouth. I wanted them to give me the answer.

I also asked them, “What do you think a high performing organization would look like?”

The next question I ask: “Do you want to be one? And if so, what is a high performing organization? Let’s discuss what it is.

Barbara explains that taking this kind of honest, open conversational approach gets people to drop their defenses, opens up honest conversations about difficult issues, and creates a new energy level among people. “I definitely see a spring in people’s step,” she remarked.

I’m noticing that those who lead effectively:

  • Ask important questions
  • Make it safe for people to have real conversations about the issues
  • Listen intently
  • Trust that the group will discover how to move things forward

Unexpected finding: what leaders really want

A Fortune 50 company recently completed a comprehensive two-year talent development program for high-potential leaders.

The company invested heavily — creating innovative games and technologies to help people understand the business, bringing in big ticket leadership speakers, and investing in expensive  development methodologies by some of the world’s best-known leadership gurus.

When asked what they found most valuable about the program, these high-potential leaders said they loved having unstructured time to talk with one another.  Despite the millions invested in the program, what they found most helpful is something that costs little.

Having time to talk with one another was the best part of the program. We had some great conversations during those unstructured 20-minute walks and over meals. We hardly ever get the chance to talk with peers from other divisions. And we hardly ever get the chance to talk without a formal agenda.  Getting to know one another — and know we can talk with one another about issues — was invaluable.

We’re under more pressure than ever before in business, with seemingly every minute booked in meetings and conference calls.

Yet carving out occasional, unhurried time to think out loud with colleagues we rarely spend time with — without an agenda or dreaded PowerPoint presentations —  may be one of the best uses of our most limited resources: time.


20 ways to be a more effective rebel, maverick, edgewalker, change agent

So many corporate mavericks and rebels have great ideas, but those ideas often never see the light of day because of the way we truth-tellers and fire-starters behave. As a lifelong outlier — yet successful business executive — here are some of the things I’ve learned, often the hard way,  that may help you or the rebels in your organization.

1. Be positive: recommendations that are stated in the affirmative, that show what’s possible vs.what’s wrong, are more likely to be heard and acted on.

2. Frame it: frame how your idea helps the organization’s goals, cause, purpose. The more relevant the idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more open people will be to the idea.

3. Ask questions that highlight the possibilities vs. further damn the problems.  Possibilities create energy, problem dissing saps it.

4. Judge ideas, not people.  The first creates useful conversations, the second hurts, disrupts and usually dead-ends.

5. When angry, stop and wonder why. This has been especially helpful to me. I used to get so angry that I’d immediately react, or should I say over-react. Wondering why a person or company did or said something provides helpful perspective. The more we understand hidden motivations the more we can frame our ideas.

6. Strive for influence not power: influence inspires and motivates people to believe and act; power requires them to do so. Influence evokes possibilities, power evokes fear.  Power requires authority, titles and positions. Influence can be earned by anyone, no titles required.

7. Start the flame, tap into the collective brilliance of others to fuel the fire:  Change agents and rebels are the ones with the courage to be the first to stand up. To move from ideas  to action, bring in others who want to help. One person with a contrary idea usually gets little attention. Three people with a shared passion around a contrary idea start to get noticed.

8. Share the glory:  Revel in achieving something that benefits many, sharing the credit and the glory of all involved.  During my freshman year in college a philosophy professor told us, “Those who know know.” Even if it’s never publicly shown.

9. Communicate in ways that create clarity from complexity:  People need to understand what the idea is, why it’s relevant, and how it will provide value. Too often we get caught up in the “how we’re going to change things” before addressing the other important issues: context, relevancy, value.

10. Address the cost/value tradeoff:  are the benefits and value of the new way commensurate with the costs of change?

11. Let it breathe:  people often need time to absorb a new way, think on it for a while. As rebels we see things sooner and clearer than most and  get impatient with other people who aren’t as fast and decisive as we.  If we go too fast, we can mow over people, hurting the chances of being able to affect change.  In my corporate rebel research study, one write-in comment summed it up, “know that our velocity scares people.”

12. Pick the right boss or executive sponsor: find that person who appreciates your creativity, your fire-starting ideas, your naked truth-telling — and who can help guide and protect you  through the complexities of organizational politics and decision making.

13. Ask good questions, become a keen listener:  These two skills will serve as your advanced navigational systems as you chart through often foggy and potentially dangerous corporate seas.

14. Learn how to facilitate messy collaboration workshops to improve on your ideas, get buy in from others. People act on what they believe in. The more people who participate in shaping a new way, the more likely it is that they will adopt that new way.

15. Show how success can be measured.

16. Address the fears:  understand what people fear about the idea; respect, explore and test their assumptions; and/or explain how you plan to remove or minimize those fears.

17. Learn how to have constructive conversations. Most organizations are use to discussions (usually in the form of PowerPoint) that advocate for ideas, a win/lose form of communications. Constructive what/if conversations examine assumptions, open up possibilities, invite everyone to contribute, and value all points of view. A good book on this topic is “Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success.”

18. Be thoughtful in all you do: Thoughtfulness engenders support, abets truth telling, brings more humanity to our work, and adds more meaning to our cause.

19. Know when to walk away: perseverance is important. But so is knowing when to walk away, when the support for your idea just isn’t there. It may have nothing to do with you or the idea, the timing might not be right. Or the risks may be too great for the corporate culture.  Or people might not believe it’s really possible.  Don’t let your idea turn into a negative soapbox, where you lose your influence and rob yourself of energy and health. As Yogi Berra supposedly once said, “If no one wants to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

20. Believe you are enough.

Solitude and leadership

As I walked the Gap of Dunloe in Southwest Ireland last week (that’s me in the far right in the photo),  I separated from our hiking group, and spent the day walking alone. Thinking. Allowing my mind to gracefully wander.

“Why did you walk apart from us all day,” one of my hiking mates asked. “Were you upset about something?”

“Not at all. I was just enjoying time to think. It helps me with my work.”

As I walked I reflected on the article, “Solitude and Leadership,” by William Deresiewicz, published last year in American Scholar. (

Based on his speech to the plebe class of West Point, Deresiewicz writes that “solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.”

He also warns that we have a crisis of leadership in America because our leaders are trained and rewarded to conform, to keep routine things going.

What’s missing is the ability to think for oneself, have the courage to argue for ideas even if they are not popular, and have the moral courage to stand up for what you believe.

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality…The position of the leader is ultimately an intensely solitary, even intensely lonely one. However many people you may consult, you are the one who has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”

When I talk to client groups about the need to quiet our minds and find time to think and reflect, they often roll their eyes. “We don’t have time to do that,” they say.  Of course we do. Shut your phone off while driving. Walk in the morning without being plugged into music. Let your mind wander while folding clothes or eating breakfast. On vacation, find time to break away.

The courage to lead comes from knowing and believing in our own convictions.  And knowing ourselves can only be obtained from giving ourselves the gift of  occasional solitude.



The 90-30 conundrum

Approximately 90 percent of people who participated in Foghound’s recent Corporate Rebel Study said that they agreed that involving rebels more helps improve corporate culture and develop a more innovative company.

BUT only 34 percent percent are “very satisfied” with rebels’ ability to provide that value inside their organizations.

Companies want these rebels’ fresh thinking but many corporate cultures are getting in the way of that happening.   For while companies want to innovate the study found that they are uncomfortable when people challenge the status quo, question executive decisions, go around the rules, and ask too many questions.

If changing quickly to  tap into marketing opportunities and challenges is more important than ever, perhaps it’s time to change what our organizations value, model new behaviors as leaders, and teach rebels how to share their ideas in ways that trigger conversations vs. provoking anger.

I’ll be blogging more in the coming weeks about rebels.  Please feel free to share this research in your organizations.  I look forward to hearing more about your experiences in creating organizations where change agents are valued vs. viewed as trouble makers.

Courage to lead: Providence Mayor Angel Taveras

True leaders are rare. Especially among  elected government officials, who tend to make tough decisions based on how it will affect their re-election chances.

One of those rare leaders is Providence Mayor Angel Taveras,  guiding the city and its people through some exceedingly painful yet necessary decisions in order to fill a $110 million  deficit.  And Providence isn’t just any city. It’s been historically  fraught with corruption, closed-door wheeling and dealing, and an unhealthy influence of self-serving insiders.

I often hear people excuse leaders’ inability to lead, saying things like, “Well he’s got a complicated situation to deal with.” Or, “It will take years for anyone to be able to change this place.”

Yet Taveras is deftly guiding the city through difficult change in order to get on firm financial footing. Imagine being a first-time urban city mayor and having to make tough decisions like closing schools and laying off community teachers, firefighters and police?

Despite these always unpopular decisions, Traveras is earning respect and collaboration from his constituents. The reason? He’s focused on doing what’s right, and working WITH diverse constituents. He isn’t dictating how to get to financial stability; he is collaborating in the true sense of the word with the people in the city who best know how to make changes on a tactical level.

Six critical leadership competencies that Taveras brings as mayor:

  1. Focus on a clear, shared goal: restoring the city to a sound fiscal foundation. Taveras’ message is clear about the urgent need to solve the deficit crisis.  Period.
  2. Honesty: revealing the city’s dire financial situation right after his election. No spinning bad news. No taking time to socialize ideas and tend to politics. Taveras has been a straight shooter, presenting the reality, and calling for people to come together to figure out solutions.
  3. Transparency, sharing: sharing the data to help everyone make better decisions.  Fire union president Paul Dougherty recently said that previous mayoral administrations would withhold financial information and often say, “Find it yourself.”  Taveras’ negotiators, however,  have “been straightforward, and they give you information when you ask for it.”
  4. Admitting missteps: acknowledging mistakes and learning from them. “They’re right,” said Taveras of crticism from the teachers union on how the city revealed teacher layoffs. “We certainly could have done a better job with our teachers and I learned from it.”
  5. Not having the answers: great leaders set goals and ask people with a stake in the outcome to create the best way to achieve those goals.  This approach speeds change. The solution isn’t dictated from above, it’s created by the people closest to the issues who know the issues, and will  be responsible for executing them. Taveras doesn’t claim to have the answers, and believes that Providence’s leaders have the ability to create the “how” now that the why is so vitally clear.
  6. Belief and fortitude: Taveras has a steadfast belief that the city will solve its problems, and he’s steadfast in his belief and his values. “He’s showing me intestinal fortitude that I didn’t think he had,” says Joseph Rodio, a lawyer for the police union. “Most politicians, in their first 60 days in office, become somebody different. He hasn’t.”

Quite simply, Mayor Taveras seems to have the courage to govern for the people and with the people.  That’s the type of leader — not politician — we should be supporting if we really want to make our cities, states and country a better place to live.


Great ideas come from great questions

What makes some collaboration and brainstorming workshops great — and others a drain? What makes some customer advisory board meetings thought-provoking, high-energy sessions, while others  are a nice meal and friendly conversation?

Aside from having a clear purpose, the most important ingredient for success is asking good questions.

Think back on workshops and meetings that you have loved. What made them so great?  My guess is open-minded people, a skilled facilitator, and great questions that you rarely have the opportunity to discuss with other smart people.  And those great questions probably helped you see new ideas that got people excited

Here are some questions to consider as you frame up an agenda for your next collaborative session. They’re from “The Art of Powerful Questions: Catalyzing Insight, Innovation and Action” that you can download here from The World Cafe.


  • Is this question relevant to the real work of the people who will be exploring it?
  • Is this a genuine question—a question to which I/we really don’t know the answer?
  • What “work” do I want this question to do? That is, what kind of conversation, meanings, and feelings do I imagine this question will evoke in those who will be exploring it?
  • Is this question likely to invite fresh thinking/ feeling? Is it familiar enough to be recognizable and relevant—and different enough to call forward a new response?
  • Is this question likely to generate imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities or is it likely to increase a focus on past problems and obstacles?
  • Does this question leave room for new and different questions to be raised as the initial question is explored?

Collaboration: the courage to be messy

Real collaboration requires that we get messy — asking new questions, questioning what we know, and putting aside our urge to get things done. It takes time to think together, letting thoughts meander, listening to different people share stories and ideas that may or may not be directly related to the topic at hand.  It takes recognition that thinking is acting.

Learning to collaborate  has been a long and challenging journey for me, a former Type A, “let’s get it done now” kind of person.  While I’m open minded I’m also skeptical, a paradox that many executives share.

But having experienced what can happen when people check their egos at the door and open their minds to “structured unstructured” collaboration  has been transformational for me.  And, believe me, that “transformational” word is one I rarely use.  The outcomes can make such a difference to company success that I now dedicate much of my client work on facilitating  strategic collaborative processes for complex organizations and companies.

With every workshop I’m reminded that the most creative, strategic answers come from people within a company. Not outside management consulting firms or the latest best selling business book author.  The secret is guiding people through a messy process where they are able to talk about questions that rarely get talked about, with people in the company that they rarely have the time or opportunity to talk with in any meaningful way.

A great article on the messiness and value of collaboration, “Collaboration: The Courage to Step into a Meaningful Mess,” was published this month by Alycia Lee and Tatiana Glad over at the Berkana Institute.  Here are a few of the authors’ key points that especially  resonated with me:

  • We are so driven to attain results that we often bypass one of the key components of creativity: the ability to question what we think we know.
  • Sole motivation to meet goals and generate outcomes comes with a sacrifice — deflated creativity.
  • Cooperation comes when people work to share ideas, whereas collaboration is that magic moment when we take a step beyond the individual needs (financial gain, meeting objectives) and co-create from a higher shared value, when you realize “we can’t NOT do this.” That shared value moves the process forward to generate new possibilities.

One last thought. It seems that every CEO in the world talks about innovation as a strategic priority, but few are pushing their companies to work in new ways to be innovative.

The secret is simple: step into messy collaboration that asks the big questions and involves diverse people far beyond the C-suite.

Getting rid of bureaucracy, bloated processes

The processes for getting things done in many companies can get so complex that it takes forever to move from point A to point B,  bogging down progress, frustrating employees and often inadvertently making customers and vendors crazy.

Before a new initiative starts at many big organizations, you need to involve legal, compliance, procurement, the quality management office — all with their own processes. You need to get a certified project management specialist, an executive sponsor, a cross-functional team, and a governance charter for how it will all work together.

Sometimes this makes sense. Other times it plain out doesn’t.  Just as IT systems, HR policies, and marketing strategies can become irrelevant, so can business processes.

Why not be the person who has the courage to bring people together to adjust  processes and get rid of what no longer works?  If you’re extremely frustrated, chances are that others are too.

In today’s New York Times Russell Bishop, author of the excellent book Workarounds That Work, suggests some simple solutions for bureaucratic roadblocks. (“Don’t Let Bureaucracy Ruin Your Day”)

Assemble your teams and ask a series of questions:

  • What are we trying to accomplish here?
  • Why does it matter?
  • How does our current process help our goals?
  • How does it hinder them?
  • What hurdles have we created for our customers or suppliers? What makes it difficult to do business with us?
  • Based on what we’re learning, what do we need to stop doing? What do we need to keep doing?

Bishop cites an example of a state agency that pulled people together, asked these fundamental questions,  and reduced 100 pages of  process rules to 20 pages.

Maybe the business equivalent of spring cleaning should be to examine  processes to see if they’re helping or hurting the business.

Still not sure? Check out this video. Powerful statistics about “corporate systems holding people back and diminishing employee creativity.” The point: how to get the company systems to work for you vs. you working for the company systems.

A thought provoking planning question

During a recent series of strategic planning workshops for a major non-profit I asked the participants — staff, donors, organizational ambassadors — this simple question, which provoked some especially meaningful insights. It may help your organization, too.

What do you need from the organization to keep giving so much of yourself?  Please name what you need in just one or two words.

I also suggest using this question towards the end of a workshop, as a thoughtful summary of all that’s been discussed.

The new science of problem solving and creativity

To develop more innovative ideas, we have to stop using conventional  right brain/left brain brainstorming techniques.

The reason?  Nobel-prize winning neuroscientists have found that the big “ahas” come from a model of the brain called “intelligent memory.”  When we learn something new our brains connect it with what’s already in our memory bank. When different pieces combine  into a new pattern we have an “aha” insight flash.

This scientific finding means that we need to develop alternative ways to traditional brainstorming.

Just as the intelligent memory concept has replaced the old two-sided brain theory in neuroscience, companies need to replace brainstorming with methods that reflect more accurately how creative ideas actually form in the mind,” writes Columbia Business School professor William Duggan in “How Aha! Really Happens” in the winter issue of Strategy and Business.

Over the past 18 months I’ve been using several new strategic ideation and problem-solving approaches  based on intelligent memory with much success.  Although I must confess corporate clients initially feel uncomfortable and wary with these new approaches because they are so different from traditional  “brainstorming sessions.”

Some of the elements that I find very effective in helping clients find the “aha insights”:

  • Reflecting on previous experiences and why they worked. This relaxes people, gets them off of  focusing on the problem at hand.  During a one or two-day session I ask people to look at these patterns of past success and what they might mean. Inevitably helpful connections are made.
  • Forgoing a logical order: I use exercises and conversations that seem to wander in order to help people wander through possibilities and previous experiences.  Wandering results in far more significant outcomes than a straight path.  Often someone will ask, “where is this going? Are we going to be able to come up with ideas to our situation today.”  About half-way through the day, they begin to see the magic of taking a non-linear route.
  • The art of good questions: being asked provocative, unusual questions is one of the best ways to trigger thinking and conversations that lead somewhere. I joke, though seriously, with friends that my questions are my art.  The most challenging part of guiding people to “aha’ insights is asking questions that open, deepen, and often explode thinking. Questions that tap into what they know in unusual ways, breaking lose new patterns and connections.
  • Photos, superpowers and metaphors: other techniques that tap into the intelligent memory is the use of photos, superhero superpowers, and metaphors to see, frame and understand situations in unusual new ways  — ways needed to connect new dots. Again, people often wonder what the heck I’m doing to their heads using these approaches.
  • Avoid conference rooms! Working in conference rooms is an energy killer, especially if sitting at a conference room table.  It’s so stultifying that I no longer will do collaborative workshops in this format. Far better to have a big room, some chairs you can move around, lots of wall space for sticking up ideas.
  • Do we really need to spend all day?: People spend so much time doing strategic analysis and developing strategic plans and allot so little for thinking.  Yet if you don’t have the strategic ideas, the planning is for naught. There’s some weird feeling that spending a day  thinking is wasting time.  Clients often ask, “Do we really need to spend five hours? Couldn’t we do it in two?”  Well, no. The way the brain works it takes at least two hours to mentally get into a place where your brain is relaxed enough to actually think creatively and begin to make the types of new connections that give you that brilliant flash of insight.  If you really want to tap into collective brilliance. If you really want ideas that will make a difference, chunk out some time and chill. I like to use the advice  from a consultant who helps  high-powered attorneys  improve their performance:  “don’t just do something, sit there.”

So as you look at innovation and problem solving, look for new ways that tap into the true science of the brain and say goodbye to traditional brainstorming. It just won’t get you where you want to go fast enough because of the way our brains are wired.

As William Duggan writes:

“Eventually, we can expect more techniques based on the new science of intelligent memory to replace methods from the previous paradigm. Companies that get there first will have a distinct advantage. What innovation does your company use, and in which paradigm do they fit, the old view of the mind or the new?